Football League Expert & Columnist
Just two good
Southampton and Reading have had glorious seasons. Peter Beagrie wonders who will finish top...
Last Updated: 12/04/12 2:04pm
There was a flurry of Championship fixtures over the Easter weekend, but I haven't been able to get this Friday night's showdown out of my mind.
The top two teams in the league - and in the form table - will go head to head and I can't wait to see Southampton and Reading clash live on Sky Sports.
We thought it would be two from three to go up, but after West Ham's home draw with Birmingham there is a six-point gap to third and the Hammers might be out of it.
I see both Southampton and Reading going up and as they're only separated by goal difference, this match could prove to be about who will win the league.
Reading have been on a great run and a victory away at the league leaders would give them the belief that they can top the division. Their final three games are against Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and Birmingham and the Saints will hoping that the in-form Blues can do them a favour on the final day.
This game may not decide the title mathematically, but if Southampton win they will effectively have a four-point lead because their goal difference is so superior. Their final games are against Peterborough, Middlesbrough and Coventry - and it will be hard for Reading to make up the gap in only three games.
But the rampant Royals have got into this position the hard way. They've played a lot of the top teams in recent weeks and have beaten West Ham, Blackpool, Leeds and Brighton in their last four games.
So in a way, this is more important for Brian McDermott's side. If they win at St Mary's I can't see the bubble bursting and they might be unstoppable until the end of the season.
The Saints have retained their billing at the top of the league following the Easter games. They only got a point against Portsmouth last Saturday - but given the tribalism and rivalry that goes with that fixture it was always going to be difficult - yet they went to Crystal Palace on Monday and took all three points.
Rickie Lambert scored his 29th and 30th goals of the season in that game and they will need him to play well if they want to put some breathing space between themselves and Reading.
Obviously everybody will see him as the pivotal player, but Southampton are anything but a one-trick pony. His goals are one of the reasons for their league position and their superior goal difference, but it's not just down to him alone.
Much is due to the way that Nigel Adkins sets his team out - they are very offensive with two wide players - and also their strength in depth up front. A lot of eyebrows were raised when they signed Billy Sharp, but after a few injury problems it's proved to be a very wise move.
Yet while these two sides like to go forward and play with flair, this game also provides a face-off between the top best goalkeepers in the division. Forget the likes of Robert Green, for me Kelvin Davis and Adam Federici have been outstanding.
Davis has only missed one league game this season and has started in 109 of their last 110 matches. Meanwhile Federici, who was outstanding against Brighton, has played in all of Reading's Championship games and kept 19 clean sheets.
The strikers may get the headlines and are the matchwinners in the eyes of many supporters, but I'm sure the players and managers are aware of how important these two are. They are definitely the best two in the division.
I'm not going to put any pressure on myself or any of the players (because I know some of them read this column) by trying to predict a winner in this game.
All I'll say is that these two teams are justifiably at the top of the Championship. Whether you want to judge it on goalscoring or defensive records, these two have been highly impressive.
Both sides have been under tremendous pressure from the chasing pack, but have covered themselves in glory.
The only question is who will end up on top of the pile on the final day?
A different kind of pressure
Southampton v Reading will take all of the focus on Friday night, but there's another huge fixture at the other end of the spectrum.
The clash between Barnet and Hereford in League Two could prove to be the difference between staying in the league or dropping out of it.
The recent upturn in fortunes for Plymouth and Dagenham & Redbridge has left Barnet, Macclesfield and Hereford cut adrift. It looks like two of those three will go down.
Both sides have been through soul-destroying defeats over Easter and will be desperate for three points on Friday night. Barnet are three points clear of the danger zone, but have an inferior goal difference so there's not a lot to choose between them.
Finally, a word for Bristol City who were the most decisive movers in the Football League over Easter. They seemed to be struggling, but got two big results by beating Nottingham Forest and Coventry. It's massive if you can beat the teams in and around you.
Do you agree with Peter's calls? Who do you think will win the Championship? Who will make it into the play-offs? Share your thoughts in the comments box below...